by Melissa Martinson and Eugenia Smith
Photo by Diana Watters
Associate professor, sociology
A.B., Princeton; M.A., Ph. D., U of Chicago
The American Mosaic Project, with colleagues Joseph Gerteis and Doug Hartmann: “We’re looking at how religious identity influences tolerance.”
“I’m going to be looking at congregations that are predominantly white, Latino, and African- American to see how different communities accommodate various types of family situations. I’m also working with a colleague to study how religious beliefs change during the life course, from youth to adulthood.”
Walking around Lake of the Isles in the spring when the baby ducks are out. Then going home to a bubble bath. “I think that's pretty close to heaven.”
“I like poking around used book stores, antique stores, and old cemeteries, getting glimpses into the past.”
“We live in the description of a place and not in the place itself.”—Wallace Stevens
“You shall know the truth. And the truth shall make you odd.”—Flannery O’Connor
Suppose a bus you’re riding on is skidding toward an embankment. You brace yourself and wonder, “Who are those people across the aisle from me? If the worst happens, will they help me?”
If you share the majority American view, says sociologist Penny Edgell, you hope your fellow passengers are religious. Citing a Pew Charitable Trusts report on religion and public life, Edgell explains, “Most Americans think the country would be better off if more people were religious. They trust religious people to come to their aid and not just think of themselves. Trust and morality are, for them, tied to religion.”
For Edgell, who specializes in the sociology of religion, the research data only confirm what she has, in a way, known since childhood. In her tiny hometown of Hanover, Ohio, religion was the unquestioned center of community life. Indeed, in communities nationwide, she says, “religious institutions provide one of the few access points, or are the access point, to social capital, to friends and social support, even business networks.
“Religious institutions wield a great deal of power. They define who's in and who's out, and what kinds of behavior and belief systems are OK. They shape how children are raised and what people think about important public issues.”
Intrigued by this phenomenon, Edgell began developing a scholarly interest in the subject as a sophomore at Princeton. Today an associate professor of sociology, she spends much of her time asking such questions as: How do religious groups exercise their power? What kinds of moral frameworks do they bring to issues of values, citizenship, human sexuality, and social justice? How do those frameworks shape the way we think about the world and about human worth—about “deserving” families, for example, or the “deserving poor,” or “deserving” recipients of good (or ill) fortune? Where does the changing American family fit into this picture?
The intersection of religion and family— two institutions that play a significant role in shaping values and ethics—is central to the expansion and evolution of faith communities, says Edgell. In the 1950s, as malebreadwinner families migrated to suburban developments and started new congregations, U.S. churches thrived. By the turn of the century, families had taken on new forms: dual-earner, single-parent, multigenerational, blended, and same-sex-parent families.
Edgell wondered whether faith communities had followed a parallel path. So with her new Ph.D. in hand, she decided to find out. She talked to clergy and parishioners in 125 churches.
A majority of the churches Edgell studied had not, in fact, made substantial shifts in thinking about families. “Eighty-three percent of the churches still organized their ministry around a very traditional, cookiecutter model of family,” she says—with a male head of household, a stay-at-home wife and mother, and two children. And most were “really geared toward middle-class families and middle-class concerns, even when they were located in predominantly poor or working class settings.”
And the reasons are not just theological, Edgell notes: “In these churches, there 's a kind of nostalgia for the Ozzie-and- Harriet image of the fifties,” when church pews and collection plates were overflowing, Sunday schools were crowded, and women were available for volunteer labor.
“Some of the more theologically conservative churches today may actually look more socially progressive than some mainline protestant churches, in part because they need to attract parishioners,” says Edgell. “To understand how religious groups confront our changing culture, we do need to look at theology, but we also need to look at institutional history and institutional culture.”
About 17 percent of the faith communities in Edgell's study did change with the times to embrace a wider swath of people and families. They launched innovations such as evening meetings for working women, and daycare for children of single mothers. Even if some gestures were largely symbolic, and even if the liturgy remained substantially unchanged, people from nontraditional families began to feel welcome. Perhaps not surprisingly, these more open congregations attracted 40 percent of all churchgoers in the study.
“Across the board, pastors and lay leaders were very good at crisis help for people going through family transitions,” says Edgell. “They made a real effort to reach out and say, ‘We know there 's this cultural ideal of the perfect family. We know right now you probably don't feel like you fit it. But we care about you.’” In this way, she observes, congregations can function as families do: “Families are supposed to support you and care about what happens to you, no matter how much you screw up.”
Not all families live up to this ideal, of course, nor do congregations. Some religious leaders avoid the “family” label altogether, says Edgell, preferring “community” as the model for caring: “For some people, families are associated with a history of loss or pain. The question is how we can come up with ways to talk about caring that are comfortable for people whose own family experiences aren't perfect.”
Language matters, says Edgell, as does “sensitivity on issues of symbolism.” Representations of a dark-skinned Christ, for example, can make people of color feel more welcome. And gender-neutral language, besides debunking the traditional notion of God the Father as ultimate authority figure, creates a more inclusive environment for women, for families with abusive or absent fathers, or for gay and lesbian households.
Acceptance of gay and lesbian households has been a particular challenge for many congregations, says Edgell. And for religiously observant same-sex couples, nonacceptance can be painful.
“Couples I talked with had grown up thinking religion and family went together. When they entered a relationship but were unable to express and affirm the relationship in a religious context, the loss to them was enormous.”
For conservative faith communities, acceptance of gay marriage may not be forthcoming any time soon, Edgell notes. “In any faith tradition, there are some lines that aren't crossed or that can’t, or won’t, be crossed openly and publicly.”
Wherever the lines are drawn, whatever the issue, any change in ministry that crosses those lines is bound to stir up controversy. When a Baptist church in Edgell's study started a group for single parents, for example, some members raised their eyebrows.
“But the church actually felt good about shaking things up and providing a model for other churches that says, ‘We can do this. This is within our faith tradition,’” says Edgell. And the ability to question tradition and acknowledge changing family models helps keep faith communities viable, she adds.
Universities and religious institutions may have more in common than we might think, Edgell believes. “Like universities, faith communities are about acquainting people with a history and knowledge tradition,” she says. “That knowledge is about larger truths, spiritual things, and ethics. It's about how we think about ourselves in the world and how we conduct our lives in meaningful ways. But it's also about questioning.”
Edgell views her profession as a kind of calling, if a wholly secular one. “As an academic, I honestly believe that there is a tradition of knowledge that I am a part of that matters,” she says. As a researcher, she immerses herself in the received chapter and verse of her discipline and then challenges orthodoxy to chart new directions; as a teacher, she passes the evolving knowledge of her discipline from one generation to the next.
Edgell says her vocation as a teacher is to “prepare students to negotiate the complex social world they’ll encounter. I want them to examine with an open mind the religious beliefs and practices that shape American values, social life, and public policy. I want them to think critically about issues like the separation of church and state and about claims that religious leaders make, whether the issue is evolution or gay marriage.
“I want them to think critically about the role of religious belief in their own lives and to be able to separate issues of personal faith from the way issues are discussed in class. I want them to respect all points of view. I want them to understand the nuances and everyday obligations of citizenship in a complex social world.”
As for that bus, Edgell says, “I would rather be with people who are well educated and can think critically and engage thoughtfully and ethically with their social world. When the person sitting next to me gets off the bus and goes out into the world, she or he votes for political candidates, shares space with neighbors and coworkers, or maybe runs an organization with some control over health care and employment policies.
“When my students leave my classroom or get off the bus, I want them to do things in a way that 's more engaged and more thoughtful, and that puts us all in position to make better decisions about the public common life that we have together. We are on the same bus, after all.”